Read, Herbert 1893–1968
Read, an English poet and critic of literature and art, was a lifelong friend of T. S. Eliot. (See also Contemporary Authors, Vols. 25-28.)
In many ways, his war-poems are Read's most amazing productions. They have an infinite compassion, pathos and horror, an utter lack of violence (one of his most marked characteristics), and above all a detachment almost unbelievable in one so physically and mentally implicated in the job of war. (Here I almost wrote 'in the job of killing', until I remembered Read's words in Annals of Innocence and Experience: 'During the whole war I never deliberately or consciously killed an individual man …')
Observe the horror and the pity of such poems as The Execution of Cornelius Vane, the heart-breaking compassion of My Company; but observe also the restraint with which the poet shows you what has moved him so deeply, as in … The Refugees….
For me, the ultimate attraction of Read's work, and of his character, for the two must always be mentioned together, lies in enigma, paradox, and perfectly wedded opposites. It is nothing as simple as 'Poet or Critic?', 'Artist or Philosopher?'. It is more nearly the 'Marriage of Heaven and Hell'; it is more nearly still a complete recognition and absorption of the totality of experience, psycho-physical, emotional and intellectual. Such a recognition and absorption as must inevitably produce the theory of lability; poems, prose, criticism and political theory. Such a wholeness as must inevitably produce within one mind, and within one body of work, strength and delicacy, permanence and lyricism, tolerance and clarity, reason and romanticism, fervour and balance, maturity and enthusiasm. Honesty at innumerable points, a form of multiple integrity, a final anarchic sanity; the philosophical code of every adult man who has let his eyes wander over the face of the world, and his mind ponder over what they have seen. And the thing that always stupefies me at this point is that Read, who is representative of more phases of human recognition than any other writer living today, can externalise those phases with complete clarity and sincerity, so that the image is never blurred, the language never misused, the high standard of selection never impaired….
The poet … may argue that Read has invented no spectacularly original 'form', that he has lagged behind Hopkins or even Meredith, forgetting that there is a form which is greater, more organic, than any 'form', a poetic return to the … 'laws of nature', laws which are so wide, even so subterranean, in their operation, as to be invisible to all but the sharpest eye and the most fully informed perception. The poet might object that the poetic surgery has been overdone, that to cut down to the bone of a poem is an act of cruelty rather than one of artistry….
The art-critic might accuse Read of a different sort of fault; that of following too many gods, that of being only too ready to fling himself into the fight for an attractive idea. But such a critic would be denying Read his very nature, his lability, his tolerance and breadth, overlooking that generous vitality which they are too selfconscious to display in public, or even to possess in private. Such a critic would miss the whole point…. For Read's humility is only the obverse of his honest solidity; it is the humanity of the man who can recognise, probe and still respect the multiplicity of the world in which he walks; that of the man who knows, for all his individual complexity, that he is but one fragment….
Henry Treece, "Introduction" to Herbert Read: An Introduction to His Work by Various Hands, edited by Henry Treece (reprinted by permission of Faber and Faber Ltd.), Faber and Faber, 1944, pp. 7-41 (in the Kennikat reprint edition, 1969).
An ideal of beauty that finds its most appropriate expression in reflective lyrics, or even in didactic poetry, has always formed part of the English conception of art. The work of Herbert Read follows this more than any other tendency in the English tradition. Though his poetry cannot be called didactic in the proper sense of the word, ideas are the main source of his inspiration. The clue to his critical and aesthetic work lies in the fact that he believes this kind of poetry to represent art in its highest form. On the other hand his writings, mainly those after 1931, reflect a different attitude: appreciation for unreflective art, for an art that entirely abandons the realm of conscious reason. With a glance cautious but full of expectation he bends over to gaze at the mysterious and creative depth of the human soul. And in so doing Herbert Read does justice to that other side of his nature which seeks fulfilment not in the universality of thought but in the spontaneity of feeling….
Read's early contacts with peasants and craftsmen have given his mind a direction that made him a literary critic of quite a special brand. His preference for what is plastic, concrete and of good craftsmanship has supplied his art theories with a certain solid robustness, which is perhaps not quite compatible with literary refinement. Read has always been more artist than art critic. This perhaps explains why he was not recognized as one of the best English critics till 1930….
Even a consideration of Read's literary methods gives one an idea of an artistic nature in which feeling plays an important part. He does not write like a scholar who builds up his work methodically and with regularity. With every new book he makes a new start. Every new book, however planned it may appear in its structure, betrays the poet impatient to communicate, the poet whom a sudden leap carries away from and beyond logical concepts. His formulation is such that it does not admit of any contradiction. His inner vision draws to itself everything that can be of use to it, silencing any critical objections. Read's thought is aphoristic, and therefore particularly suited for the essay. Where he attempts to create more systematically and on a larger scale he is not so successful.
His keen and vital intellect is matched by an open-eyed unbiased judgment. His two main subjects—literary criticism and the history of art—open for him the way to all other spheres of culture. He is widely read and shows critical understanding in every field. There may be other critics of his time his superiors in scientific training or in verbal magic: there are not many that are his equals in universality of interest and richness of aesthetic feeling.
The other pole of Read's personality [is] his sense of order [and] his deep respect for the laws of nature….
The true balance … between [his] 'appollinic' tendencies and his fundamentally romantic sensibility is found by way of the aesthetic experience, and in particular through the work of art itself. In creative imagination Read experiences a reality that is clear and ordered as well as dynamic.
H. W. Hausermann, "The Development of Herbert Read," translated by Léonie Cohn, in Herbert Read: An Introduction to His Work by Various Hands, edited by Henry Treece (reprinted by permission of Faber and Faber Ltd.), Faber and Faber, 1944, pp. 52-80 (in the Kennikat reprint edition, 1969).
[In The Green Child] Read's clear, economical style is more akin to that of Hemingway's sportsman's sketches than to any other twentieth-century writing. There is a striking resemblance between the description of Olivero's walk along the bank of the stream and Hemingway's wonderful evocation of a North American river in In Our Time. The resemblance is not distinctly to be found in the texture of the writing for Read constructs a longer sentence and eschews Hemingway's excessive use of conjunctions, but both writers are distinguished by the cool, sharp, homesick eye and the gift of progression, and both can claim stylistic descent from Defoe. But whereas Hemingway has a forth-rightness and an inherently objective vision which makes him almost 'the modern Defoe' Read's relationship to Defoe is not so simply a matter of affinity; his is not by any means a return to Defoe's documentary style, but is rather an aftermath of that style's complex and passionate flowering in Wuthering Heights, the heat gone and its traces calcined.
Robert Melville, "The First Sixty-Sixty-Six Pages of 'The Green Child'," in Herbert Read: An Introduction to His Work by Various Hands, edited by Henry Treece (reprinted by permission of Faber and Faber Ltd.), Faber and Faber, 1944, pp. 81-90 (in the Kennikat reprint edition, 1969).
In 'The Scene of War' Read … adhered closely to Imagist principles. These short poems are formally perfect, classically objective word-pictures of reality. The Imagists' indifference to subject-matter appears in his treatment of the horror and desolation of war….
When Read describes the havoc of war in 'Villages démolis', the pitiful fate of 'The Refugees', or the derision of 'The Crucifix', he does not want to stir our feelings of pity and indignation; he on the contrary endeavours to transmute these feelings into art….
For the success of Read's artistic purpose it appears necessary that he should treat some large objective theme, some 'outer horror'; for when he chooses for his subject some inner experience of war he fails. Thus, 'Liedholz' is merely a fait divers which sounds unnecessarily emphatic when told in verse; in fact, the prose version of the same event in Ambush makes much better reading. 'Fear' is little more than a 'conceit', and 'The Happy Warrior' a naturalistic study with a satirical implication.
Read must have felt that the complexity and depth of the inner experience of war could only be handled in a longer poem. 'Kneeshaw Goes to War', 'My Company', and 'The Execution of Cornelius Vane' are progressive steps towards that end. But it is only in 'The End of a War' that Read achieves the desired impersonal beauty. Here, too, the poetry is not in the pity; but pity is not banished from the poetry as it is from 'The Scene of War'. What makes 'The End of a War' one of the few very great war poems is less its poetic form (there are some weak lines in it) than the wide range of thought and emotion which it gathers up in a perfectly adequate dramatic situation. The detachment with which the poet formerly transmuted the 'outer horror' into art is here brought to bear upon the highly complex inner experience of war. None of its essential aspects is sacrificed, neither the German officer's fanatic devotion to his vision of power and glory, nor the French girl's equally single-minded love of her country. There is no trace left of the superior, or didactic, or satirical attitudes which marred the earlier longer war poems….
Most of Read's satirical poems are directed against man's reluctance or inability to follow whole-heartedly his natural intuitions and healthy instincts. In 'The Brown Book of the Hitler Terror' he shows up, if I understand it rightly, the inconsistency of our romantic heroism and noble attitudes on the one hand, and our timidity and prudent discretion on the other. In the 'Short Poem for Armistice Day', which is probably the finest of his satires, the poet finds a poignant image and haunting rhythm to bring home his feeling of anticlimax at the sight of armistice celebrations, artificial poppies, crippled and disabled soldiers, of inane gestures and dead symbols, after all that has happened in the war….
It appears from a study of Herbert Read's poetry as well as of his prose works that his personality combines the talent of the poet-philosopher with that of the poet-artist. He has the desire for knowledge and the capacity for abstract argument which characterise the man of science and the philosopher; but he also has the artist's quick and highly specialised sensitiveness to outward shapes. His feelings are aroused not only by the eternal themes of nature, love, death, and religion, but also by the logical implications of modern physics, of organic mechanism, and of certain psychological discoveries. On the other hand, pure sense impressions (not altered by literary or other extraneous associations) equally speak to his affections and give him intuitions of a profounder reality.
These two modes of thinking are not always reconciled in Read's poetry….
Not all of Read's lyrics show the same predominantly pictorial character. There are many in which other emotions are at least as important as the joy that comes with the vision of the 'innocent eye'. Thus 'The White Isle of Leuce', 'September Fires', 'Day's Affirmation', 'Night's Negation', 'The Falcon and the Dove', 'A Northern Legion', 'Bombing Casualties in Spain', 'To a Conscript of 1940', and 'Summer Rain' are more purely lyrical in the accepted sense of the term. They, too, show the peculiar hardness and dryness of some of the typically Imagist poems, and they always have that shyness or emotional virginity which characterises Read's personal style. Those who like their lyrical verse expansive, richly orchestrated and very explicit will find little to their taste in his poetry and they had better not waste their time trying to enjoy it. It may be doubted, however, if they can enjoy Wordsworth, for the Lake poet too achieves his finest effects by transmuting passion into impersonal things.
H. W. Hausermann, "Herbert Read's Poetry," translated by Léonie Cohn, in Herbert Read: An Introduction to His Work by Various Hands, edited by Henry Treece (reprinted by permission of Faber and Faber Ltd.), Faber and Faber, 1944, pp. 91-107 (in the Kennikat reprint edition, 1969).
Read has always committed himself to searching life at a very great depth. In so doing, he has deprived himself of almost all the traditional digging tools, taking it on faith that he must submit naked and without artifice to the presence of the Truth he is seeking. To some, he may appear to be mining coal with his bare hands. Others may see him in a nearly messianic light: a man getting at the lode of composite personal experience by the admittedly uncertain medium of words, which have served as well as they can if they show the reflected light of a Truth not so much sensory, but Absolute: opaque, heavy, and full of grandeur and mystery….
To use words as sparingly as Read does, shouldn't one see that each syllable pull a great deal more weight than if it occurred in a somewhat denser line? In many of [the poems in Moon's Farm] the employment of language is fairly near being arid, and is substantially less successful than if the poems were to be divested of their linear structure and written as Sir Herbert's excellent prose. Again, the inadequacy is not entirely technical, but is inadequacy of insight also, the heart's blood of poetry. In these cases, the moments in which Read believes with such passion and intelligence are given no true chance to reach us. We have only Sir Herbert's word for it that they exist, or have existed. There is too much of the will, here, and not enough of the carrying flow of passion, which, in a great poet, is inevitably and deeply connected with language. Read's verse has over it, still, a strong cast of the would-be poet, the straining inarticulateness of the amateur. In only a few places does he display the exploratory and personal sense of language that identifies the major poet.
It is amazing, therefore, after noting that it lacks the skill, the insight, and the passion requisite to his subjects and approaches, to find in Read's poetry a number of qualities which are nobly memorable, and (one hopes) of permanent value. The poems I think of most persuasively as Read's ("A World Within a War," "Moon's Farm") are about land, and its relationship to those who live on it. These poems have more of the feudal (and older) sense of belonging to the land than any I know since Wordsworth's. He writes, "When you live all the time in the same place / Then you become aware of time." At their most memorable, Read's lines in this vein have the profound authority of statement of words spoken by the dying, or by those who are in love: one has the same horror of asking the poet to change them for "effect" that one would have if they were, indeed, out of such actual situations. It is this naked and yet somehow imaginative and right simplicity, paired with the deep feeling for and of place, that gives Herbert Read's poetry its great spiritual and human resonance; it is fitting that after forty-five years of exemplary service to civilization, Herbert Read should make his ultimate contribution as a poet as "a man speaking to men."
James Dickey, "Herbert Read" (1957), in his Babel to Byzantium (reprinted with the permission of Farrar, Straus & Giroux, Inc.; copyright © 1956, 1957, 1958, 1959, 1960, 1961, 1962, 1963, 1964, 1965, 1966, 1967, 1968 by James Dickey), Farrar, Straus, 1968, pp. 63-5.
Sir Herbert Read's active career as a poet began in the middle years of the first World War and has continued down to the present. Only Pound's creative lifetime has been longer and more representative in our time: for although Edmund Blunden … was publishing his pleasant Georgian poems in 1914, they have remained essentially Georgian and unrepresentative of the line of development taken by poetry in the twentieth century. From the beginning Read's poetry has been recognizably, even insistently, modern, although it has been a modernity little disposed to outrage conservative sensibilities, even in the earlier decades of his career: and it has been a modernity that has changed surprisingly little in style over half a century. One cannot read the 286 pages of Read's Collected Poems without a sharp awareness of the writer's informed intelligence, and especially of his simple courageous decency that seems the strongest single quality in his best poems. The persistence of these virtues across fifty years must necessarily command a strong assent from the reader. But unfortunately these virtues we assent to so happily too often seem attached to the poems only by the most tenuous of connections. Disembodied and unincarnate, they lend the shadow but rarely the substance of power to the words on the page….
Read names "the poets who were my immediate mentors," and the list includes T. E. Hulme, F. S. Flint, Ezra Pound, H. D., T. S. Eliot, Marianne Moore, and William Carlos Williams. Although I see little direct influence of Miss Moore on this verse, the others are much in evidence throughout the volume. What these poets share in common, perhaps again with the exception of Marianne Moore, is a strong element of Imagism, at least in part of their work. Despite its superficiality and general invitation to mediocrity, Imagism has been a surprising source of strength in the best of twentieth-century poetry…. Read's first volume of verse was predominantly Imagist in inspiration, and it was doubtless the spare economy of Imagism's visual evocations that led into the considerable achievement of his early war poems; and it continues to be an operative influence in his work.
Marius Bewley, in The Hudson Review (copyright © 1966 by The Hudson Review, Inc.; reprinted by permission), Vol. XIX, No. 3, Autumn, 1966, pp. 479-83.
The blurb for [Read's novel] says: "First published in 1935, The Green Child is Herbert Read's only novel. But if he had written nothing else, this one inspired book would insure his fame." This is simply not true: there are fine passages in the novel, as there are in much of Read's prose, as in his war diary … (The Contrary Experience: Autobiographies …), and his other autobiographical and critical prose. He is to be honored, I think, for his reasonable romantic championship of the art of others.
David D. Harvey, in The Southern Review, Vol. V, No. 1, Winter, 1969, p. 259.
As a poet Herbert Read was certainly not at the mercy of the Zeitgeist; his own poems—which will, I believe, outlast most of his criticism—laconic, private utterances, are the creation of his own "true voice of feeling"; his concern with groups and movements a matter of principle, or the expression of another side of his character, to which, perhaps, he often sacrificed his poetic genius on behalf of talents of less value than his own….
Imagism, with its accompanying form of "free verse", was the first of the several movements with which Herbert Read was to associate himself. From the regionalism which inspired his first and enduring poetic loyalty to Wrodsworth he moved, in postwar London, into the American expatriate ethos which, from Henry James to Ezra Pound and T. S. Eliot, introduced into English letters that internationalism which changed, perhaps permanently, the course of its native current. Eliot was to become his closest literary associate and lifelong friend; perhaps against his own natural bent he was caught up into the stronger current of the Imagist movement, whose first apologist was T. E. Hulme, whose often-quoted lines
[I] saw the ruddy moon lean over a hedge
Like a red-faced farmer
may be poor poetry, but are perfectly good prose. Herbert Read's natural preference for the laconic, together with his adherence to Wordsworth's view that poetry should be a selection from the language of common men, may have attracted him to a poem and a theory of poetry which do not, in retrospect, seem more than an incident in the history of English poetry….
Herbert Read once confessed to me the difficulty he had in memorizing verse, even his own; a defectiveness of the inward ear which may in part have accounted for his bias….
In the course of his literary life Herbert Read hastened to relate his criticism to system after system, most of them now themselves perished and replaced. Under the compulsive necessity always to have a theory, he was almost naïvely uncritical of ideas so long as they were new; and throughout his works is scattered a sequence of obscure names (most of them Germanic) of Freudian psychologists, Behaviorists, and Heaven knows what, cited as infallible authorities in one book, forgotten in the next. The root of this continual theorizing was his refusal to accept the only final sanction there is for any qualitative view of the world….
[Neither] Herbert Read nor anyone else infected by the excitement of the Surrealist movement stopped to ask whether those who opposed it might have motives other than ignorant prejudice, reactionary obstructivism, and so on. The intoxication of Surrealism could not, obviously, infect believers in a spiritual order, whether Christian or theosophist, for whom the "irrational" hierarchies of heaven and hell were in any case real, and more clearly conceived than by these newcomers from Behaviorism, Freud, French anti-clerical rationalism, and what-not. It seemed easy to make light of the criticisms of so popular a writer as J. B. Priestley, who had strongly attacked the movement on the self-evident grounds that the Surrealists "stand for violence and neurotic unreason", and that "you catch a glimpse behind them of the deepening twilight of barbarism that may soon blot out the sky, until at last humanity finds itself in another long night." C. S. Lewis, scholar and Christian theologian, was another opponent. Yeats, who had been studying "the irrational" ever since the 1880's, and who could have told not only Herbert Read and the Surrealists but Freud and Jung themselves a great deal about the memoria and the hodos chameleontos which is only now beginning to be understood, reached Priestley's conclusion; "after us the savage god," he wrote, after seeing in Paris the first performance of Jarry's "Ubu Roi"….
[Read] was always careful to say that not all Surrealism was, as he would understand the word, art; all the same, there was already in the concept of Surrealism the beginning of the confusion that has since threatened to submerge any such distinction. There has never been any precedent, in the art of the past, for the notion that the function of art can ever be "destructive"; but once art and literature are conceived of as expressions of the Zeitgeist, with that Zeitgeist itself at the service of a nihilism (as Read himself knew very well), the only possible term can be the destruction of art itself. This the Surrealists themselves were the first to proclaim, at a time when few could have foreseen the triumph of the principle of destruction they deliberately introduced into art.
Kathleen Raine, "Herbert Read as a Literary Critic," in Sewanee Review (© 1969 by The University of the South; reprinted by permission of the editor), Summer, 1969, pp. 405-25.
Read's life had an underlying shape which is best evoked not by the conceptual metaphor of the dialectic, but rather by an image of archetypal nature: the mandala, the ancient symbol of the solar cycle, the shield of Achilles, the sacred circle that, apart from its uses in ritual and contemplation, unites within a single form the universe's many aspects, and parallels the karmic wheel of existence portrayed by Tibetan Buddhists. Read himself refers to the 'magic circle' of the mandala as 'the symbol of the self as a psychic unity', a symbol whose recognition in the art of infants was for him 'an apocalyptic experience'; he sees mandalas in general as 'images of wholeness and integration, inviting withdrawal from the chaotic distraction of daily perception, inducing contemplation and selfless meditation'.
Read's two most personal books, The Green Child and The Contrary Experience, can be seen as mandalas rendered in literary form, for their meanings are multiple, yet their designs are unified within circles of experience. In The Green Child, the fictional hero Olivero, and in The Contrary Experience that character's creator, Read himself, both leave the country of childhood and afterwards both return to seek regeneration. (p. 14)
In Read's poetry and criticism, in his theories of aesthetics and education and anarchism, this consciousness of the need for a return to the pristine and the natural is always present, balanced by a knowledge that the power we gain from such an Antaeus-like contact with earth is expressed nowhere more intensely than in the work of romantic art. (p. 15)
The dialectic suggests the mode of progression by the interplay of reason and intuition. The mandala suggests the direction of progression, that of a circle returning on itself, like the world-encompassing snake, Uroboros.
The mandala also suggests Read's personal view of life in so far as it accepts a pattern and deviates from the general inclinations of our age. Most modern men have plotted their lives in the form of a trajectory of progress. The momentum may decline, the arc may fall, but when it reaches ground they are at least farther forward than they were in the beginning. They live by a concept of material advancement which Puritans share with Marxists. Read's concept, though he was in no ordinary sense a religious believer and claimed no mystical experience, was that of the spiritual man and also that of the anarchist who looks, not forward to some Utopia at the end of progress, but round a curve of intention that will lead men out of corruption into simplicity. (pp. 15-16)
It was a book of criticism that Read entitled The Sense of Glory; if there is any quality that unites his work, in every field, it is this. The glory of the world perceived through a child's eye and later through the awakening mind of a creative artist permeates his autobiographical writings and gives a peculiar lambent quality to his poetry and his rare works of fiction. It extends into his critical writings, where he is seeking always that special fire of inspiration which liberates man from the mere imitation of the laws of nature, and it inspires his anarchism, that doctrine of man glorified by freedom. It even extends into his organizational efforts, into the centres and societies he created, into the great lecturing journeys, all intended to stir in men the aesthetic sense that would somehow preserve in them the visionary gleam which Read detected in the art of children as Wordsworth had detected it in the perceptions of childhood, the gleam Wordsworth too had associated with glory. The causes Read supported, the artists whose work he loved, his own work in all its variety, were emanations of that wonder at life of which he had been aware from the moment when he passed out of childhood, where it had been instinctive and therefore unperceived, into adolescence. (p. 32)
The Green Child is no ordinary novel. It has been called a parable, a romance, a fairy tale, a Utopian fantasy, an allegory, and it contains elements of all these in its intricate symbolic suggestiveness. There is a bright and visionary clarity in its writing that brings it nearer to The Innocent Eye than to any other of Read's writings, and it also resembles that book, written only two years before, not only in its discontinuous, mosaic pattern, but also in the importance of spatial as opposed to chronological elements. (p. 66)
It is clear that he was by temperament and talent a poet and an essayist, not a novelist, and that The Green Child was the kind of jeu d'esprit which many poets have performed once in their lives, as a change from more familiar genres…. [But] The Green Child would not have been the small and unique classic it has now become if Read had not used in writing it his poet's complex sensitivity to words and his essayist's power to control and manipulate ideas. (pp. 78-9)
Throughout his life Read was troubled by the difficulty of achieving a proper balance between visual and conceptual elements in poetry. He did so most successfully in his shorter poems, and some of the best of these belong to the volume of imagistic verses entitled Eclogues. (p. 89)
There is a perceptible line of development in this poetry, and the burden of it is carried in his long, rather than in his short poems. Some of the later short poems were more complex in form and perhaps more profound in thought than the Eclogues, but it is hard to show development in the 'clarity and elegance of … sensibility' which, as Robin Skelton has remarked, is most evidently displayed in Read's briefer poems. It is in the longer poems that development takes place, a development from metaphysical abstraction towards an ever greater concreteness of vision…. He was, in fact, always at his best in poems—long or short—where action or the strong visual rendering of physical scenes was involved, preferably brought into a detached form through an element of indirection imposed by distance in time or space.
Conflicting with this characteristic concreteness of vision was Read's obstinate ambition to write the long contemplative work which he regarded as the sign of a major poet. He was fascinated by the genre of philosophic verse, and the poets he admired most, from Donne and Traherne, through Wordsworth and Coventry Patmore, to such innovators as Hopkins and Eliot, were all in their various ways metaphysical. Read was ill equipped, at the beginning of his career, to emulate them. He was innocent of religious experience, untutored in philosophy. His mode of thought tended to be visual rather than conceptual. He later acquired a working knowledge of philosophy as it impinged upon his fields of aesthetic and political interest, but he never won acceptance among professional philosophers, who regarded his thought as nebulous and inconsistent. Yet it is often an advantage in a poet to be an imperfect logician, for this leads him to seek the expression of philosophic truths by oblique paths, and Read moved forward, as his Imagist origins taught him, by a series of attempts to reconcile the visual and the conceptual, and by the development of a style that matched his poetic personality. (pp. 95-7)
For the solution Read eventually found for the long contemplative poem he was indebted to Browning; it lay in the substitution of a personal for an impersonal voice, which immediately set the poem within 'the structure of an event'. (p. 100)
Read rejected the characteristic attitudes of the dominant trend in English poetry during the 1930's. Though he took an active part in the Surrealist movement, with its insistence on a revolutionary art, and made public before the middle of the decade his hitherto private adherence to anarchism, he did not accept the idea of art as propaganda, and consistently rejected the doctrines of social realism fashionable at the time.
In age and experience, Read really belonged to a half generation between the classic 'modern' writers—Eliot, Pound, Lewis, Joyce—and the younger poets first introduced as a group through the publication of New Signatures in 1932. Despite the aristocratic element that often tinged his thinking, he retreated into none of the varieties of conservatism that Eliot, Pound and Lewis each in his own way adopted, nor was he tempted to follow Joyce into an aesthetic cul-de-sac. He retained his pacifism, he broadened his anarchism. And the poems he wrote between 1933 and 1945 reflected as deep an awareness of the social problems of the time as anything Day Lewis or Auden wrote. As late as the 1950's when both these poets had long abandoned social revolution in any form as a theme, Read was still, in such a poem as "The Death of Kropotkin," asserting his anarchist faith.
The circumstances of the time in fact fostered a poetic activity in Read which resulted in the production, in the twenty years between 1935 and 1955, of a series of poems superior to any but a handful of very short pieces from the preceding decades. His vision deepened in intensity and clarity; his expression sharpened in intelligibility, and in the best works of these two decades it fused feeling and form into constructions so harmonious and economical, and yet so emotionally active, that one is unsure whether to regard them as perfect examples of classicist form or perfect expressions of romantic feeling. In these poems, more than in any of his other writings, Read in fact achieves that synthesis of the abstract and the organic which had always been his goal. (pp. 106-07)
If to the end of his life Read considered himself primarily a poet the description applied only to a minor proportion of his work. Most of his writing, in volume as in numbers of titles, he did as—in his own description—'a critic and philosopher of art and literature'…. He went beyond the contemplation of actual works of art and literature to seek the sources of artistic creativity and to establish the relationship between the work of art and the percipient mind. And these very studies led him to the point where his aesthetic philosophy took on an ethical character, and became synthesized with the political philosophy of anarchism which he had already evolved in his youth.
Yet it is no rigid structure of metaphysical architecture that faces us when we seek Read's philosophy. It is rather a kind of coral growth, a symbiosis of attitudes related by a common urge that can perhaps most accurately be described as the dynamic equilibration of freedom and order. It was not in the nature of Read's mind to marshal his thoughts into a single summational work, even of so undisciplined a structure as Coleridge's Biographia Literaria which was for long his critical bible. It was his method to work out the facets of a subject in separate essays and afterwards to bring them together; a collection established in this way he regarded as a more organic entity than a book constructed on a mechanically logical plan. He did not reject the systematizers; indeed, he borrowed their ideas without concealment, but he found that in the fields of thought where he was working, so near to the spontaneous urges of creation, his own approach was the more fruitful. And in the end, if there is no system, there is certainly a recognizable pattern, a philosophy of the relationships between the arts and human society, which spans the whole horizon of human creativity from poetry where Read's criticism begins in the judgement of his own art, to the politics of the unpolitical where it emerges as a criticism of all civilization. (p. 121-22)
In the end it was towards Jung that Read felt most strongly drawn, as he moved deeper into the symbolic interpretation of the visual arts, and found in the writings of the Swiss psychologist not merely the ideas that assisted him, such as the seminal theory of the collective unconscious, but also a knowledge of the varieties of symbolism, in art, in religion, in primitive magic, of a richness unparalleled in any of his rivals. (p. 130)
As a writer, Read divided his activities between the spontaneous, lyrical approach of the poet and the logical, discursive approach of the essayist. His views on poetry tended to the romantic; his practice in prose was inclined to the classical. Poetry was a private activity; prose led him into the public world, the world of lecture rooms and conferences against which his poetic self put up a ritual fight which was doomed from the beginning to defeat. (p. 176)
Read's definitions of romanticism and classicism and his attitudes towards them fluctuated constantly, and it is significant that in the introduction to Surrealism he chooses to speak in his role as the poet, dedicated to romanticism, rather than as the art critic, committed to impartiality. In fact, if any real alignment as an art critic appears in Read's writings as he moves out from the shadow of the academy, it is a dedication to the interpretation of the contemporary whether it can be defined as romantic or classical. (p. 180)
Of all Read's many books the most influential was undoubtedly Education Through Art. Its reputation spread far beyond the cognoscenti of arts and letters who were Read's special audience; it reached and influenced many of the very people he had hoped to convert—the teachers and the instructors in colleges of education. Its influence led to the foundation in Britain of the Society for Education through Art, and a few years later, in 1951, to the establishment under UNESCO auspices of an International Society for Education through Art. Yet the success of Education Through Art was largely one of esteem, and to that extent transitory; today one does not hear so much talk among educators as one did a decade ago of the fresh ideas and insights that Read—an outsider—had brought into the field of educational method. This fate is at least in part due to the fact that the ideas Read advanced have been absorbed into educational theory, and have invisibly and often indirectly modified teaching methods and curricula in many parts of the world, while the book itself has receded into the background stance of an educational classic. (p. 264)
Read died believing that his philosophy of life—the aesthetic philosophy—was valid, and that some day, if the world was not destroyed by technicians, mankind would come to live by it, through true education and a life in which work and art would become indistinguishable. He never denied his anarchist convictions, and though he became reconciled to thinking of the free society as a point on a distant horizon, he refused, in republishing his early libertarian writings, 'to give an air of caution to the impetuous voice of youth. Indeed, I now envy those generous feelings.' He believed in the great art of his time, and he continued to write poetry as he felt it should be written, in spite of his lack of popularity as a poet. He realized the hollowness of much of the popularity he did enjoy in his later years, and he recognized that his works most likely to survive were precisely those least noticed in his time—the poems, the autobiographies, The Green Child.
In a historical sense, I believe that Read will also retain a unique place as an interpreter of his time, for few writers have probed so deeply and so intelligently into the nature of our culture, and none has brought together so suggestively the insights of modern philosophers and critics, poets and artists, psychologists and social scientists, as Read did in the varied corpus of his work. (pp. 291-92)
George Woodcock, in his Herbert Read: The Stream and the Source (reprinted by permission of Faber and Faber Ltd.), Faber and Faber, 1972.
In the remarkable diversity of Sir Herbert Read's achievement, The Green Child remains his masterpiece, a work as extraordinary now as when first published in 1935. Seductive, complex, self-contained, it appears at once to invite and to forbid analysis. Is there a secret to be wrested from it, or is the story obscure in the sense in which Read once defined obscurity as a poetic ideal—"vision without meaning, concrete, synthetic, but held in suspense, contemplated without question"? Read held that poetic coherence is different in kind from prose coherence and has priority over it; that poetry requires from the reader an essential submission, which renders analysis always ancillary. (Without submission, he thought, analysis is monstrous.)… The Green Child is a philosophic myth, and Read's mythmaking—as he makes clear in the book—belongs in the tradition of Plato. Although an apologist for surrealism and a defender of the night-side of the mind, Read was in his own work characteristically cerebral. Even in his poetry one remarks, in conjunction with original and striking images, a hard intellectuality, with difficult and elliptical patterns of thought, more often than "vision without meaning". What seems to have happened in The Green Child was that he combined his ideas in such unexpected ways and embodied them in a fantasy so entrancing as to render his readers unable or unwilling to grasp the meaning of his allegory. Yet it is the matching of image with idea in this work that is, finally, most extraordinary of all.
Read's thought was dialectical, characterized by probings and testings, tensions and contradictions. His work balances thought with sensation, reason with emotion, idea with image, order with anarchy, in an equilibrium never intended to be quite stable. There was always a center, however. His thought turned on the priority of aesthetic over rational cognition, of the image over the idea, the concrete over the abstract, and in book after book he attempted to demonstrate this priority. In The Green Child his thought became flesh. This strangely luminous story of a quest for the source of life is itself a complex image which embodies the idea of the priority of image over idea….
Read's life work can be summed up as an attempt to construct a post-idealist romanticism, in which the Idea, the absolute of nineteenth-century romantic idealist aesthetics, is transformed into the Image. Underlying discursive thought, he maintained, is aesthetic cognition, the nondiscursive, subjective-objective complex of "superreality". The work of art, he said in "Myth, Dream, and Poem", is a "living synthesis"—"that miracle which is the only objective evidence we possess of whatever superreality is cosmic and eternal".
Worth T. Harder, "Crystal Source: Herbert Read's 'The Green Child'," in Sewanee Review (© 1973 by The University of the South; reprinted by the permission of the editor), Autumn, 1973, pp. 714-36.